NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 1, 2013

'You feel isolated and alone'

Veteran connects service dogs to injured soldiers

BY JENNIFER SOLIS
CORRESPONDENT

---- — Nearly every hour a U.S. military veteran takes his or her own life. More often than not, the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are factors in pushing them over the edge.

With an estimated 400,000 veterans in Massachusetts alone, this statistic suggests a staggering epidemic of suicide among men and women who have bravely worn the country’s uniform.

It is also a woeful fact that nearly half the 50,000 dogs residing in animal shelters across the state will wind up being euthanized because no one has volunteered to adopt them.

But, it’s here, at the nexus of these two sad statistics, that Newbury resident Donald Jarvis has discovered that a flicker of hope survives. And with help from his new pal, Mocha — a black Lab mix trained to be his service dog — Jarvis is beginning to see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel for him, and, he hopes, for others like him.

A 2004 graduate of Triton Regional High School, Jarvis served as an E-4 specialist combat engineer with the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 182 Engineering Company of the 101st Engineering Battalion. He was in Afghanistan on his second tour of duty following a year in Iraq when the vehicle he was in went over an IED. He suffered an injured right knee and mild TBI that left him with headaches, eye sensitivity and some memory problems.

After more than six months in a medical facility, Jarvis returned to his home in Newbury. His knee still aches, but the pains in his head are slowly fading. He learned strategies for coping with the memory loss, but his emotional pain was harder to deal with because, like so many vets, he kept it locked inside. Jarvis said his family and friends just assumed he was “partying too much” — not understanding that his pattern of destructive drinking was actually a classic symptom of PTSD.

Luckily for him, Jarvis discovered Operation Delta Dog, a nonprofit organization that partners homeless dogs trained to be working service animals with vets who are in need of a little help from a canine friend. The dogs offer a “protective buffer” when a vet is out in social situations that helps the person better acclimate to crowds, promotes a sense of calm and eases panic attacks. The pooches are trained to be alert to and provide comfort during night terrors, help ease the symptoms of stress and depression, and offer stability for a veteran who has trouble with balance, according to the group’s website.

Local veterans can participate in the training process without leaving their jobs or families and the dogs are given a new lease on a life “filled with purpose and affection.” The animals are considered working service dogs, meaning that under federal law they can go with the vet into public spaces that pets are not allowed.

Although Mocha has only lived with him for a few short weeks and the two have many months of cooperative training ahead of them before he can fully operate as a service dog, Jarvis said he is amazed what a difference having Mocha around has made already. It’s kept his mind from drifting down those old, depressing valleys. Instead, now he more often seeks a positive focus.

“It’s different when you have someone who depends on you,” explained the young vet, who is now using his own post-war challenges as a springboard to help other local service men and women.

Too many vets he knows are “falling through the wayside and are struggling,” said Jarvis. Unlike after the Vietnam War, most communities are good about welcoming home their war heroes. Yet, still, in a few months time “you’re on your own” to cope with what are sometimes severely disabling mental health issues, Jarvis said.

So he’s working to increase awareness of Operation Delta Dog and do his part to raise funds to offset the $8,000 it costs for the organization to train each animal. Because there’s no cost for a qualified veteran to receive a service dog , the organization relies on tax-deductible private donations, sponsorships and grants.

As part of his goal to donate $16,000 to Operation Delta Dog by the end of the year, Jarvis held events earlier this month, and is fundraising at the Topsfield Fair on Oct. 5, at Spuds Restaurant in Rowley in mid-October and through a charity walk sponsored by the organization in November.

But he also seeks to connect therapeutically with fellow vets on a more personal level by establishing regular self-help meetings at the Town Hall. The meetings would be self-funded and strictly confidential — similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous format. Just a place for vets to share their stories and talk about their anxieties, frustrations and anger.

Jarvis also wants to educate friends and family about the signs and symptoms of PTSD.

“You feel isolated and alone. You don’t think people understand. Sometimes your own mind can be your worse enemy,” said the former combat engineer.

For more information about Operation Delta Dog, visit www.operationdeltadog.org.

To contact Jarvis about his proposed self-help meetings, contact him at jarvis.don@gmail.com.